GOVERNMENT Senator Walede Michael “Mike” Coppin urged Parliament to legislate to ban the award of excessively high fees to attorneys contracted by the State, in his maiden contribution in yesterday’s Senate Budget Debate.
He lamented that under the former People’s Partnership (PP) government, some $900 million had been paid in fees to contracted attorneys, a scenario he described as “a deep fog descended across the legal profession”.
Alleging a past wanton abuse of the Legal Profession code that gives guidelines as to attorneys fees, Coppin opined, “It is clear to me that we have to legislate the method of contracting out legal work, and of assessing the fees.” He said the controversial $900 million included $445 million spent previously by the Ministry of the Attorney-General, plus $292 million by 60 State Enterprises, plus $166 million in legal fees spent by just four Ministries which have been reported, out of 22 Ministries.
“This gives us roughly a total of $900 million spent by the last government in only five years,” he said. “From statistics that I have in my possession, attorneys fees as a percent of the total recurrent allocation of recurrent expenditure to the Attorney General’s Office grew from 28 percent in 2008, to 40 percent in 2011 and now stands at a whopping 44 percent in 2015,” explained Coppin.
“Forensic investigation for the period 2010 to 2015 amounted to roughly $221 million. The fees for forensic investigation are absolutely shocking when one considers that we have an Anti Corruption Investigation Bureau within the office of the Attorney- General which has been neglected and appears to be incapable of successfully prosecuting anyone. This means that before anyone goes to court and without anyone getting ‘lock up’, millions of taxpayers dollars have already been expended.” Coppin contrasted these hefty sums to unjustly enrich a few attorneys to a severe compromising of the “Poor Man’s” access to justice through the Legal Aid system. He recalled Chief Justice Ivor Archie lamenting the paucity of attorneys doing Legal Aid work and the lack of representation to criminal defendants, despite the large number of attorneys graduating each year from Law School.
“While the last government was filling the pockets of their friends, we still have not come up with a solution that would ensure the Legal Aid attorneys are paid at a level that would ensure proper legal representation to those who cannot afford it.” He said the Budget raises the allocation to Legal Aid to $33 million, up from $22 million last year.
Coppin hoped that some 202 vacancies in the Office of the Attorney General, and 198 vacancies in the Ministry of Legal Affairs, can be filled by hundreds of graduates each year leaving Hugh Wooding Law School. He was glad that the Government has decided to do more legal work by State attorneys, rather than contracting private attorneys.
Coppin welcomed a saving of $38 million by merging the Office of Attorney-General and Ministry of Legal Affairs, saying the combined costs will now be $443 million, less than the $481 million spent previously by them as two separate entities. Coppin, head of the Heliconia Foundation, a thinktank of young professionals which he said supports the ruling People’s National Movement (PNM), described himself as an attorney and an economist.